Bare-knuckle fighting, 21st century edition

Think “bare-knuckle fighting,” and you’re likely to think one of two things:

1. Sheer brutality.

2. Men with handsome mustaches standing upright or leaning backwards for 864 rounds as they occasionally try to hit each other.


(Yes, that’s the legendary John L. Sullivan,the first (or maybe the third) true heavyweight champion and certainly the last to win the title in a bare-knuckle bout.)

Bare-knuckle fighting briefly came back into existence in the wild and lawless days of early mixed martial arts. In Japan’s Pancrase promotion, fighters went without gloves but couldn’t punch each other in the face with closed fists. The UFC had no gloves aside from the one glove worn by boxer Art Jimmerson.

Why would Jimmerson wear one glove? He had a boxing career to consider, and gloves protect hands. (Why he omitted the other glove is a matter of some debate — maybe so the ref could see him tap out, maybe so he’d have one hand free to have some chance of fending off grappler Royce Gracie. It didn’t work.)

But remember that phrase: “Gloves protect hands.” Sure, they also limit cuts that form quite easily when raw knuckle meets face — watch Kimbo Slice’s backyard and boatyard scraps, and you’ll see a lot of unfortunate people with faces badly torn by Kimbo’s massive fists. But the main purpose of gloves is to keep hands from shattering on skulls.

So is bare-knuckle boxing set to make a comeback? Apparently, to some extent. And they’re going down the same route as the UFC in its early days — recruiting Ken Shamrock.

MMA fans are cringing at the idea of the long-declining, much-battered Shamrock taking another fight. He also was never really known as a puncher, winning most of his fights by submission.

What’s most interesting about this fight is that is brings more people into a mostly underground world. Shamrock’s opponent is James Quinn McDonagh, subject of the gritty documentary Knuckle. The critically acclaimed film followed Irish “traveler” families with disputes that have gone back generations, with bare-knuckle fights barely providing a moderately safe outlet for the hostilities.

Across the Irish Sea, bare-knuckle boxing is making a legitimate comeback. VICE looked into the subject and did a compelling mini-documentary.

That said, the credentials of “Machine Gun” seem a little murky. And while MMA attracts elite athletes, 50-year-old Shamrock will have to suffice for this old-school fight sport.

How old is too old to fight?

Jordan Breen raises a question along those lines on Twitter today, linking to video of a dreadful performance by MMA/kickboxing veteran Gary Goodridge and wondering how promoters can keep trotting him out into the ring.

The fight’s horrible — opponent Catalin Morosanu seems to enjoy landing shots at will through the first round but later seems reticent to hurt the poor guy any more than he already has. You can almost hear Howard Cosell vowing to quit covering the sport.

In other recent Senior League fighting, Ken Shamrock keeps competing on ever-smaller stages, and Jake Rossen asks at ESPN how long he can go before commissions step in and say no.

In boxing, the current WBF world champion is 48-year-old Evander Holyfield, who defeated fellow 40something Frans Botha for the belt. He’ll defend it against Sherman Williams, who is apparently not a paint.

A few fighters can be productive after 40. Randy Couture has been a viable MMA fighter, most recently proving that James Toney is not. George Foreman cleanly knocked out Michael Moorer in his mid-40s to become a champion again. Yet both benefited from periods of inactivity — Couture still has fewer than 30 fights on his record, and Foreman was out of the sport for roughly 10 years before returning. (In the Hollywood universe, Rocky Balboa had quite a few years to recover from all those Clubber and Drago neck-twisting power shots.)

Hard and fast rules clearly won’t cut it. The real danger is head trauma, and MMA fans are less likely to worry over 47-year-old Couture than they would over 40-year-old Chuck Liddell, who has been knocked out cold in two of his last three fights. Goodridge has been knocked out too many times in his career, but Shamrock’s issues are different — he’s simply being outclassed in most of his fights.

And that’s the problem. We can’t simply tell fighters to stay out of the cage or ring simply because we’re tired of watching them tap out against unknowns. All we can do is skip those fights as paying customers or journalists. It’s clear that the audience for Ken Shamrock’s fights — substantial four or five years ago — has dried up, and that may force him to quit fighting at last.

For Goodridge and others who might circle the globe looking for a country willing to rubber-stamp their pass into a ring, it’s up to their friends, family and fellow fighters. And ultimately, the man himself.